Saturday, April 23, 2005

Multiple O/S Tango, First Movement, in Gee Unnatural

I've spent the past few hours dealing with one of those really, really little computer problems that seem to creep up from time to time. The ones that are so simple and insignificant they threaten to completely destroy the vast and complicated computing house of cards which is the modern operating system.

Our trusty little computer I built a few years ago has probably been the most reliable computer I've ever worked on. Not to say that things haven't gone wrong, they have, but the things which have gone wrong on this box have all been mild and simple to fix for the most part.

For the past couple of years I seduced it into running multiple operating systems. On my main hard drive I've got Windows, and on the second I've been running Linux.

I've always been of two minds about computers. Sometimes I want to geek out, open up the hood and tinker around with the innards, but much of the time I just want to do something. Much of the time I want the computer to not only get out of my way, but actually help me accomplish something useful, with a minimum of thought not focused on the task at hand.

And of course for every task there are usually two kinds of tools: ones that are easy to use, and ones which are hard to learn but ultimately more powerful and useful. This is very true of computers.

A good computing system should offer both kinds of tool. Hardly any do.

So, I've found that the route to having both kinds of tools available for our household's computing needs has been to run both Windows and Linux. (Although, I've been very intrigued by where Macs have gone lately.)

Oddly enough, I've found that the stereotypes of both Windows and Linux really aren't always true. Although they are true enough to justify the stereotypes' existences.

Windows has always been seen, or at least marketed as, the Everyman system. It does what You need it to do and you don't need to learn much.

Until you do. And then it quickly becomes an Odyssey of Initiation into the Heirarchy of the Black and Arcane Magicks necessary to placate the Great God System. Oh, Regedit, accept this humble and pathetic sacrifice of mine most Holy Weekend.

Or you need it to do something more than office, game, media, or internet.

However, what it does do it does damn well. Software installation is almost bloody effortless, which one doesn't fully appreciate until one runs Linux, where this has always been a serious weak point. Click and *pouf* There it is on your desktop! And nearly everything runs on Windows.


And, of course, if you work in an office, you probably use Windows, and Office, and if you have to take work home it's nice to have it at home as well. This is especially true because Microsoft likes to "tweak" the standards for Office file formats every so often so that other programs can't read Office files, forcing you to buy the latest version.

This is slowly becoming an issue with us. M----- uses Office at work, and likes to have Office at home so she can do stuff here and at work with no fuss. We've had Office '97 since, well, 97, and we've never needed anything better. We haven't even come close to using the features we already have, much less have need for anything better. We own a huge Tome on Office, and there are powers and functions I've never even come close to using. I know of someone who used Excel 95 to create a networked business system for a company and it handled everything from invoicing to payroll.

Office is honestly one of the best software suites ever created. With the incredibly HUGE exception of their file system.

Microsoft has always had Office write bizarre and arcanely complicated files, so that none of the competing products could read their output. And then they tie it into their Windows biz, or charge you twice as much, like Mac Office.

For instance, I just used Word 97 to create a file which was only the word "test". Four characters = four bytes plus layout and font info. 19,456 bytes. It's worse with every new realease. Someone with office XP, open up Word, do nothing else but type "test" and save. How big of a file did it create? Post a comment, I'm curious.

Anyway, while a good bit of that is stuff which allows Office to be flexible and powerful, a lot of it is obfuscation.

This really blew when I worked for places where people used different software, like Lotus or WordPerfect, or whathaveyou. It got tiresome for people to have to always request not to have that file in Word format, because someone couldn't open it.

I mean, Office is in any other respect clearly superior, so why were they worried? Was WordPerfect's 5% market share a real worry? Evidently, yes.

M----- uses a different version of Office at work than we do here at home. I've created a couple rather simple Word documents, emailed them to her, and had the formatting be all wonky when she opened them in the newer, and supposedly compatable, version of Word at work! And when she "fixed" the formatting and emailed it back to me... all wonky here. Seriously annoying for us personally, but I'm sure this has caused many corporate types to Look Bad when, say, giving presentations or taking work home and emailing it to the boss at work. Good for sales of new versions of Office, I'm sure.

Anyway... in contrast to the Windows universe of computing experience there's Linux. Which is mostly free and a product of the work of many thousands of hardcore computer geeks out there who live for making powerful programs and making them available for anyone to use. The central philosophy is that "information wants to be free" beloved of hippies, hackers, librarians, and academics not writing grant proposals everywhere.

Linux is what's known as an "open" system, where all the details are public and open to scrutinity. Somewhat like how science works, where new data and theories are subject to peer review to see if they work or not.

Linux has always had the reputation of being a tool of the second type. That is, ultimately more flexible and powerful, but with a heck of a learning curve. Over the past several years it's gotten much more friendly, but still lags behind Windows quite a bit if you aren't geeky.

Since it's been mostly the work of hardcore geeks, it still remains a weird hodgepodge of effortless and transparent power coupled with difficult arcania. Whenever some geek somewhere has gotten the bug to create the world's best and/or easiest tool for doing something, you have, well, sometimes the world's best and easiest tool. But sometimes just the best, but bloody difficult, and sometimes the easiest, but bloody limited.

Again, it's gotten so much easier lately as the Linux community has taken the useability question more seriously, and since there has been some actual money on the table for software development. Both Sun and IBM have invested quite a lot into the free software world, and notable IPOs like RedHat have brought more venture capital into the community. For good or ill, depending upon you viewpoint.

I've found that there are tasks which Linux does far more easily and powerfully than Windows. Where easy and powerful have been combined, it's freakin' magical.

I never use our scanner with Windows if I can possibly avoid it. So many of the software "tools" included with Windows devices are more pretty eye candy than substance, and often make it hard to do what their purported purpose is. The crap software included with my CD-ROM drive and scanner, to name two, are horrible. To paraphrase Bart Simpson, I never thought it was possible to both blow and suck at the same time.

Our scanner with Linux, on the other hand, just works. No other software needed. And the program Linux uses is downright helpful about options and choices of where to send the scan and what to do with it afterwards.

CD ripping/buring applications are likewise clean, simple, and powerful. The options to do just about anything are there if you need them, but nearly invisible if you don't.

Printing, on the other hand, is still the realm of Windows, because printer makers usually only provide Windows drivers, and Mac ones if you're lucky. Linux? pshaw...

There is a Linux printer program, which does a damn fine job on many of the more popular slightly older printers, but not always...

But on the Linux side, much of the "free" software for Windows you might find for Windows on the internet is just a front end to hook you into buying the "complete" version if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, you've just installed a keylogging program which is even now recording everything you do and sending it to Indonesia in the hope that you'll enter a credit card number or bank password.

Linux doesn't have virus scanning software, because it's not an issue. I went back to Windows 98 from Win2K because of the virus problems. And I've been happy about that choice ever since. Also, because Win98 simply runs faster. Every version of Windows seems to run slower and slower. Once again, why did you install the new version of Windows? Really? Installing Linux on a slow Windows machine often feels like an upgrade, because many things run so much faster.

Of course, then there's the new Mac, where every new version is faster than the old ones, and more powerful. But Apple's always been a hardware company, and you have to buy one of their expensive yet oh, so pretty systems.

So anyway, anyway... back to my original problem...

Since software installation has been a bit of an issue with Linux, once I got a working Linux system I pretty much left it alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

However, while it worked, and worked well, I knew there were newer and other, perhaps easier to use options, available. But which to try? The Linux world offers hundreds of possibilities... or even the Big Few versions could confuse even hardcore geeks with their relative options.

The basic "Linux system" can be combined with thousands of other programs and packaged in various ways depending upon your particular need. Fantastic if you're informed, educated, and knowledgeable. Confusing as hell if you aren't.

*end of part one of the saga*

Reading Neal Stephenson's essaay In the Beginning Was The Command Line may be helpful. You can download it here or read it online here.

Note well that this is out of date in some respects. BeOS doesn't really exist anymore, but Mac has actually incorporated most of what Neil thought was cool about BeOS. MacOS is now built on top of a free system, BSD Unix, so you have the best of both worlds: a slick and easy to use top end over a free and open core system which you can open up and geek out on if you so desire. And Windows is, to use his car analogy, now producing huge, expensive SUVs. XP is kinda like those "luxury" SUVs: huge, gas-guzzling, hard to drive, and heaven help you if you actually dare to take what's in all respects but looks a suburban station wagon offroad, but it impresses people who don't know any better and looks good in your driveway if you care about such things.

Teaser for part two: how a few bytes of data on my hard drive almost rendered my entire system unusable when switching Linux systems!


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10:18 PM  

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